What’s your favorite single moment in a video game? Like… what moment do you look back on fondly, what moment gets you to evangelize the game to everyone who will listen? When I ask people this question, without fail, each and every one tells me about their favorite story beat.
Maybe it was that moment where BT caught you as you were falling in Titanfall 2. Maybe it was when “rules of nature” hit just so as you were slicing a giant robot in half. I remember one of my friends telling me that the absolute relief on Alyx’s face when she found you in the rubble of Half-Life 2: Episode 1 was the most important moment for them in a video game. People have told me about Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” hitting in Red Dead Redemption.
It’s always story.
(I WILL DO MY BEST TO UPDATE THIS WITH PICTURES TOMORROW)
LETS START WITH A QUICK INTRODUCTION
Okay so let’s get something out of the way first. This article started out as a twitter thread, which began with this:
still wild to me that the game industry is like “writers are here to dress up the game” rather than going “the game is a story, and all the elements of the game act to serve the story.”
For me, the idea was simple: I saw a tweet with Bernie Sanders at Joe Biden’s inauguration that became a brief meme, and someone captioned it with “narrative designers attending design meetings” or something like that, and I thought back on my experiences working in games and other game designers I’ve heard from about their experiences in games.
To me, it feels like management doesn’t quite understand just how valuable those writers can be. As someone who’s talked at length before about how a lot of our ‘best practices’ in game development are actually just methods that got entrenched before we knew any better, and how they might not actually be our true best practices, I thought I’d do a thread illustrating how I think narrative works in the context of video games.
I’m now turning that into an article, because I wrote that thread at like 2 AM.
Most of the feedback has been really good! Tons of people going “really good thread, read this” and stuff, and that has made me very happy. I thought nobody would read it and it accidentally went viral. That’s very cool and I’m so grateful to everyone who shared it. To those people, I don’t have a lot to say.
However, a few people had some negative things to say, so we can try to get these objections out of the way really fast before we get to the actual meat of the thing. See, I said “it’s weird to me that people use their writers wrong” and a dozen people went “WHAT ABOUT THE GAMES WITHOUT WRITERS, HUH?”
I was taken aback by this and I felt like some of these people were just trying to be contrarian or deliberately misreading me, but others seemed to be replying in good faith, so I figured it was worth taking a step back. I thought about it a bit, and I think what’s happening is a base assumption I’m making here.
What’s that? Well, in film school, one of those really early lessons they taught us was that you basically have several different modes of making a movie: narrative, experimental, and documentary. When you write about narrative film, it’s just kind of taken for granted that you’re talking about narrative film. No one ever stops you to say “wait, what about documentary?” because, from the context, it’s clear what you’re discussing. Whataboutism isn’t necessary.
So, yes, to be clear, I’m literally discussing a specific mode of games. We’re not thinking about Tetris. There is no implied demand that Pong must be a character study. This is about how stories are told in games, not a weird blanket demand that Microsoft Flight Simulator become an RPG.
…I would play Microsoft Flight Simulator RPG…
Okay, but, like, let’s put all our cards on the table: this is an essay about how story is told in video games, and how I think story can be told better. Obviously this means I am not talking about Counterstrike or Tetris or Flight Simulator or what have you. I am talking about games with stories in them. When I wrote my first tweet, saying “it’s weird to me that studios treat their writing one way, but writing should be treated another way,” to me, this was implicit that games without writing would not be included, by virtue of, y’know, not having writing. If I’m saying “games writing is interesting,” it’s not a gotcha to say “Tetris doesn’t have writing!” I’m clearly just not talking about Tetris.
Make sense? I’m talking about games with stories in.
If you think my work has value and you want to help me out financially, that would be great because being disabled in America is expensive. I’m putting all this out there for free because hey, I used to be in poverty and couldn’t get by without government assistance; I know what it’s like not to have resources available to you that other people have in spades. I don’t believe people should be denied access to educational materials like these just because they’re poor. My hope is that those of you who are able to support are willing to help not just me, but the people who can’t afford a lot of access to other game design materials. If you’re able to help and you think this goal of providing access to people who need it is good, here’s how you can help me keep writing:
VIDEO GAMES ARE WHEN YOU PRESS BUTTONS AND LIGHTS COME ON, RIGHT?
A game is about doing things.
With a movie, I’d argue you are not doing anything. Oh, I know, I know, there’s the whole active/passive watching discussion to be had, but let’s get simpler than that: do you physically do anything significant to progress the plot of the film? Do you partake in decision-making that moves a novel or comic forward (aside from turning the page)? I would argue that no, you do not. In these works, the narrative is delivered to you as a work without meaningful choice.
With games, things are different. At a fundamental level, you are going to press a button so that a video display changes lights and colors in front of you. A game is not a thing where you sit there and light change without input from you. That is a video. A game must make you do input.
Okay, okay, we’re onto something here.
Now, I have a phone sitting here in front of me. I can press a button and the flash light turns on. I can press it and the light turns off. On. Off. On. Off. Do I care?
I think from the flashlight exercise, we can reasonably assume that “press button → light change” is not why people press button in game, yes? If things were that simple, we’d just all buy flashlights and never buy anything ever again.
When a publisher sends me a video and the video is like “here is a new set of flashing lights that change when you press buttons,” I can get excited. Are the colors meaningfully different? Do I have more buttons? Not necessarily. I might buy Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and Serious Sam 4. Both of these have similar button presses and relatively similar sets of light that change as I press those buttons.
From this, again, I think we can assume that we’re not just getting hyped because of various orders in which we press buttons to alter the colors on a screen. In a way, it’s a lot like words. Yes, we have 26 letters in English, and yes, we can arrange those numbers in ways that create new meanings. For instance, when we rearrange the letters in “horse,” which refers to this monstrous creature:
We can get “shore,”
As you can see, no equine abomination here. A shore isn’t even alive, it’s a spot where a body of water meets a land mass.
What I’m getting at is, like, hey: we humans have created a set of tools for communicating ideas, and while the tools themselves can be arranged in various patterns, it’s not the patterns themselves that give us anything, it’s the meaning we ascribe to those patterns. So a game is not “a series of lights that changes as you press buttons on your computer,” even though that is actually what you are doing and what is occurring.
A game is an experience you have.
I read a definition that defined a game as structured play. This was all well and good for, like, chess, right? If “play” is a form of recreation, then we can “play with dolls,” but it doesn’t become a game until we add some sort of structure, through a rule set. Then suddenly our dolls are actually “miniatures” and we’re playing “Warhammer 40,000.”
Video games are a biiiit different. The definition made sense when you had pong. It makes a bit less sense when you’re playing something like My Father’s Long, Long Legs or Microsoft Flight Simulator. This is a case where the descriptor is still used but the dictionary definitions don’t strictly match up. There is no structure to Flight Simulator; all you do is get in an airplane and fly around. Do what you want — it is unstructured play, it is recreation. Other things are stories, worlds, adventures, all sorts of things; they are distinctly different from ‘games,’ even though many video games could be described accurately as structured play.
What I’m saying is that a ‘video game’ is software you interact with in a way that is generally recreational or artistic. Games, as we’re gonna call them, even if that is confusing, are something you come to because of something more than lights that change when you press buttons.
Meaning is achieved when the game’s specific inputs and outputs work together to create an experience.
Here’s an example. In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, you can recruit soldiers by punching the fuck out of them and hooking them up to a hot air balloon and when you show back up at base they’re like “b… boss!!” *salutes* “so kind of you to kidnap me and recruit me to your army!! Thanks, boss!” And then you punch the guy in the groin and he gets up and he’s like “again!”
It’s silly, I know, but it’s charming as fuck, and it quickly becomes part of your routine. Recruiting soldiers is one of my favorite parts of the game, and being able to use those recruits to do things like research new technologies, go on missions to earn resources, and even communicate with people because of the languages they have is really fascinating.
Every time you come back from a mission, you’re met with these characters who all love and respect you and will salute the absolute shit out of you. You can salute them back, and I often do.
And then something bad happens.
You find out there’s a mysterious infection back at base, and it’s really fuckin’ up your crew bad. That’s no good, so you try to figure out what’s causing it, and eventually you discover it’s a special kind of parasite that thrives in the vocal chords of people who speak certain languages. This particular strain infects people who speak Kikongo.
What sucks is, there’s only one way to stop the parasite: you have to kill these people. These aren’t enemy combatants, right? These are your people, the ones who fought alongside you, who were always happy to see you, who place their absolute, total trust in you as their commander.
And now you have to kill them.
I remember walking inside that base, standing there in front of the people I was responsible for, and pulling the goddamn trigger.
But not before they saluted me and I broke down in tears.
I cannot express to you how agonizing that moment was, but Kojima and company pulled it off with absolute perfection, and Boss’ response was exactly what the game needed in that moment.
I don’t remember my feel of my mouse, or the graphics card I had at the time, or anything of that sort.
All I remember, with perfect clarity, was this moment in time.
So when I say that storytelling is what it’s all about, this is what I’m trying to tell you. No one tells you that you’ve just got to play this game because it has a brilliant minimap implementation. No one’s going “oh man, the game with the absolute best coyote time is Celeste,” that’s… important, it’s vital usability, it’s the grease that helps the wheels turn, but it’s not how humans operate. It’s not how we process things, value them, or even remember them. I’m not saying these things aren’t valuable, I’m just saying that if we look at what the average human being cares about, it’s emotion.
HOW A LOT OF STORY GETS IMPLEMENTED
So a long-ass fucking time ago, people made ‘video games,’ which was basically just a series of rules and some light flavor text to give context to what the player was doing.
Like, if you’re making a video game in 1987, you probably aren’t doing full motion video and voice acting, because how are you going to fit that on a floppy disc. Programmer? Sure. Artist? Absolutely. But narrative designer? Well… probably not.
So many of these early games were like:
You’d figure out some gameplay, do some art, push technological boundaries a bit, and oh, right, maybe hire some guy to write a story. Often, writers would be like, a guy who took a creative writing class in college one time. I remember as recently as a couple years ago, an AAA guy saying something like “we hired a real screenwriter this time, our last guy was someone in QA that, no offense to them, but we wanted a professional this time, not an amateur.”
You’ve also got people who don’t care about storytelling at all who just think “yeah I’ve seen Aliens a lot, I bet I can write that good” sitting down and banging out a script and calling it a day. Writing isn’t easy to parse like art or code. With code, if you run it and it crashes, you know it’s broken and needs to be fixed. With art, most people can look at a drawing and go “yeah that’s awesome” or “wow that’s bad.” With writing? You could get 80 pages into a novel before you realize it’s not going to work. It is deceptive that way.
So from the get-go, story didn’t really matter, and when we got technology good enough to tell stories that could matter, we’d already kind of entrenched this idea of “story is a way to flavor what’s already there.”
John Carmack, one of the creators of the legendary Doom, said something that amounted to “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Later, he’d change his position:
But his original quote is telling, and it’s a big element of the way story is treated in games today (because we got here by story not being a necessity, so it became a best practice/structural issue). So often, I’ve heard about how a big AAA studio builds a bunch of set pieces and then demands the writer fill in the blanks at the last minute. I’ve seen writers get mere months to make a ‘cinematic’ video game’s story together.
(How is your game cinematic if you didn’t start with the story? That’s such a weird thing to me)
For my own experience, I once got brought on super late on a video game. For $1500, I rewrote, according to the contract I signed (I didn’t count), around 60 quests. In that two week period, without changing the objectives in any way, mission structure, character portraits, the order in which characters appeared, or anything else. Just the actual text of the dialog. The game released a couple months later.
The point is, writing is often used as garnish, right? It’s the lemon on the glass they give you at fancy restaurants. It’s decorative. It’s not part of the structure of the work itself, it’s something people realize they ought to have but rarely know how to make it work.
For an industry that’s constantly trying to make people take it seriously as a valid artform… this seems kind of weird to me. In movies, you’ll have some guy picking up a copy of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in an airport and going “wow, this would make a great movie.” A scriptwriter is hired to write the movie, actors are courted for roles they want to play, and so on. All of this is done in service of putting a specific story on screen.
But no one ever plans a bunch of cool shots and tries to jam a story into that — anyone who does tends to make a pretty big disaster of a piece. It always messes up the story.
When someone sits down and says “I want to adapt the sport of ping pong into a video game,” it’s understandable that they would not need to devote the entire enterprise to telling a story about ping pong. But when someone says “I want to make a horror game,” if they just come up with a bunch of gory deaths and figure out the actual story later, the experience tends to feel like a convoluted mess.
WHAT MAKES STORIES WORK?
Well… stories are essentially a series of decisions which are acted upon by the characters within them. Even a story about two people sitting in a restaurant watching cars go by involves decision making. If a pink truck drives by and a character comments on it, they’ve chosen to comment on it. Stories happen because human characters, or characters imbued with human characteristics, make decisions.
When you create events and then attempt to create a series of decisions that lead to those events after the fact, the audience picks up on this and the whole experience feels fake. Decisions can end up feeling like they lack justification.
Think of this like the uncanny valley effect or revulsion towards spiders; humans have a hard-wired ability to see certain things in a certain way, which trips the brain into discomfort. You see something that looks almost human, but not quite right? It makes you uncomfortable. You see a spider move? That weird cadence causes your brain to go “oh that’s dangerous, I should get out of here.” There are all sorts of these processes — one of the reason people struggle to eat the color blue is apparently blue objects in nature are largely inedible, while one of the reasons people want to eat tide pods is that they have the physical similarity to objects that possess high nutrient-fat content due to their shape and shiny quality.
When it comes to stories, humans can feel what is real and they can feel what is fake even if they can’t articulate it. Some level of artifice works — we can believe that the monster in The Thing is real while we’re watching the movie, but but the second the characters start doing really, really stupid things, we’re immediately pulled out of it. We can believe in a monster that is completely unnatural — we can never believe in a person who does things that don’t make sense for a person to do. We deride them, the way we would a real person in the real world, which takes us out of the movie.
So when you make a game, and you put a story in that game, but the story isn’t the core of the experience, then the character moments don’t feel earned, and when they don’t feel earned, the audience doesn’t feel much of anything. Maybe boredom, if you’re lucky.
Stories are selfish this way.
Of course, being inanimate objects, they’re not really selfish, it’s that our tolerance for unreal people is so low that the illusion of reality is easily shattered. So, when you tell a story, you have a priority, and that priority is to make it extremely human.
Your goal, in other words, is to generate empathy within the audience, to create characters that people believe in and give a fuck about.
And that’s what we’re talking about right now.
“IT’S SO EASY, ANYONE CAN DO IT” IS BULLSHIT AND HERE’S WHY
So we just got done talking about how fuckin difficult it is to write a story.
But… you’ll notice that anyone thinks they can do it, right? When it comes to making video games, there are four disciplines that offer to work with me, usually for free: musicians, voice actors, translators, and writers.
First off, just to be clear, I don’t take work for free. I actually worked at a company once where someone tried to trick free labor out of someone and I did my best to put a stop to that and get the guy paid. A separate company I worked at, one of the leads changed someone’s contract to pay him for a mere hour of labor, and I fought hard to pay the guy for the work he did. We won, he got paid, the lead no longer is allowed to work there.
The problem with every single one of these jobs is that anyone thinks they can do it. One person I really admire is an amazing musician and I want to work with them, but they’re a rarity in this industry; most of the people who offer to do work, especially for free… on one hand, they’re desperate for opportunities because competition is stiff, but on the other, it’s really really hard to find someone who is working at a professional level.
(As an aside, most people who say to me (TO ME!!) “I can voice act” do it because some friends told them they’re good at accents and should get into voice acting. That’s great, but you gotta, y’know, take acting lessons, be in a union, get casting calls, and so on. I don’t normally hire people just because they DM me with “I got a good voice” (exception: Cory Chase, the voice actor (not the porn star) for Bill in Adios, someone I knew for so long and had heard mock act for years that I had total confidence in him, and he fucking nailed it because he’s like… massively gifted. Finding people of that level of potential is super rare!). I’m someone who loves unknowns! But you work for me? You get paid. End of discussion. Don’t undervalue yourself, but also… be realistic about your skill level, okay? This isn’t a no, this is a “please respect the craft by dedicating yourself to it, and please respect yourself by charging actual rates instead of just going ‘i got a nice voice i’ll do it for free.’ I will never, ever accept free labor on my games unless you’re that friend who did some art and would only let me pay him in a six pack of beer. I respect you if you respect yourself. So respect yourself.)
Which brings us to writing.
A lot of people think they can tell stories. This is because we tell stories every day; a story is, at its core, a sequence of events, right? “I went to the store, I got milk, I came back.” That’s a story. Not a very good story, but it’s a story nonetheless.
If we draw, we can see, instantly, what a good drawing and a bad drawing are.
Who do you think is the better artist, me or Caravaggio?
and here’s Caravaggio!
Now, let’s not be unkind to the man. He obviously tried very hard, but I’m the clear winner. We could obviously offer him a lot of feedback, telling him what he got wrong and why he should change it, where my work is clearly flawless. As a god among men, I am both immune to and in no need of criticism.
But you get the point. It’s very easy for you and I to tell the difference between a good artist and whatever I am (the previous paragraph was a joke, Caravaggio is the good one, I am the bad one. it might be hard to tell, but he just edges me out!). But a good writer? You might have a good scene or two early on, but the story might shit the bed.
I’ve seen this countless times — interesting trailer, interesting premise, interesting first few pages or minutes… and then it all falls apart. There are, of course, plenty of ways for a story to fall apart; we talked about the many, many shortcomings of The Last Of Us already, for instance. Sure, you can gussy up the story with enough money (like The Last of Us), but if there’s a rot there, ultimately, the story will fail to resonate. People will call it “of it’s time” at best, and “dated” or “honestly pretty bad” at worst.
Games are rich with bad stories — most of our most vaunted narratives are praised not for their actual quality, but because of a desire from people for games to finally be taken seriously. If they’re expensive enough, they’ll get a lot of praise; if the studio behind them, say, reaches out to try to change a review because they feel like they’re owed acclaim, they’ll get that acclaim. There are only two studios I know that attempt to manage reviews in this way. Both consistently get 90+ reviews and game of the year awards, so, hey, the awfully dishonest behavior works, I guess.
Thing is, I keep hearing an open secret: there’s a policy in AAA, especially the closer it gets to Los Angeles (Southern California is where studios like Naughty Dog, Treyarch, and Santa Monica Studio are located) where directors will show team members scenes from various movies or television shows and go “we’re going to copy that.” I’ve heard from various narrative designers about this so much that it’s a running joke in the discipline itself. “We had to change the whole story because the director caught up on some tv show over the weekend” or whatever. Wasted work, wasted potential, because people who don’t respect the art form just want to copy what they like, like a child telling you he came up with a story and then repeating an episode of Caillou he just saw.
Which is how you end up here:
Now, hey, references aren’t exactly bad, but when you’re trying to make a legally distinct reference to something that already exists, just… lifting from it directly, without thinking why it’s doing what it’s doing, whether it’s the right choice for your work, or how adaptations should work. It’s unthinking, it’s uncaring, it doesn’t respect the art form or stories, which is why these stories almost universally waste every ounce of potential the medium has.
Can you feel the distaste? Because oh man, there’s distaste.
You’ve read this, and you’re probably thinking, “so, what, are you being an elitist here? You’re talking an awful lot about how a lot of people can’t write.”
Nah, man. Not at all. Because the deep, dark secret of writing is that, well, anyone can write. You just gotta respect the craft. Just about anyone can become a weight lifter, but if you go into the gym totally unprepared and try to lift a weight, you’ll fail. Unlike a story, though, if you can’t lift the weight, you can’t. With a story, you might not even know it sucks until it’s done. If you respect the art of weightlifting, then you know you can grow and become stronger, but if you don’t, you’ll never succeed. Because it’s so hard to figure out whether or not storytelling is succeeding — and let me tell you, there have been so many times where I’ve had to go back and rewrite things completely, killing my darlings, as it were, because something that worked at one point in the story stopped working after other parts got written — everyone who is drowning in stories dramatically underestimates the difficulty level in making a good one.
The difficulty of going “This drawing is rendered well” is easy: Caravaggio is great and I am not. The difficulty of going “this story is told well” is astronomical because it can’t be done at a glance.
But you can do it! All you have to do is practice and respect the art. That’s it. You do that? You’ll get there. Every single game lead I’ve heard of who says “we should copy this scene from something I like” or who puts an ex into a game to get some kind of revenge, or who can’t make decisions and just throws ideas at the wall, or who ends up just pushing their team into doing a lot of stupid writing because they can’t commit? Every single one of them could be a great writer too, but it requires actually respecting the craft (and also, in some of the most egregious cases I’ve heard and witnessed, therapy).
People who can’t write, but consume a lot of stories, develop a total disrespect for the artform; they think “hey, this is easy, anyone can do it,” and the only times they succeed are when their financiers have deep pockets. Usually, the stories they copy are the most popular ones, which is why so many references are super obvious (Gorillaz sampling from Day of the Dead for one of their tracks is a much more artistically interesting deep cut than the zombie video game copying The Walking Dead, the most popular and still-airing zombie show on television, and it’s also a recontextualization of the sample, which is very different than just a direct and uncreative ripoff). This soulless cross-pollination stops games short of ever really meaning anything, and yet time and time again, weak and uncreative tyrants scream at their workers and crunch them to death all because their direct copy of a very commercial work isn’t perfect.
It’s so frustrating, but that’s what you get when people don’t respect your discipline. If you respect the craft, you can perfect it. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to. They don’t, so game stories are in a state of arrested development — they rarely progress to the kind of mature, respect-worthy stories that actually possess power because they’re so busy just… trying to be “historically accurate” by basing their set design on a very historically inaccurate (BUT ENTERTAINING) tv show like Vikings.
How do you tell stories good, and how do you tell stories good in games with the desire to make people care so much that they take action?
GAME DESIGN IS THE ART OF MOTIVATING PLAYERS TO TAKE INTERESTING ACTIONS
Game design is the art of motivating players to take interesting actions.
How do you achieve this?
Well, years ago, a book took the game design world by storm. The author basically argued for the idea of gamifying… well, everything. It felt awesome and validating to think that wow, finally, someone gets how good gaming can be for the world, and this isn’t some underground shit, it’s like, a real, physical book! It’s legitimate.
Now, full disclosure, I have not read the book, so I do not know if the writer was directly responsible, or the book was just widely misunderstood, but what I do know is that the conclusion was disastrous: game designers everywhere started gamifying the absolute fuck out of everything. Do this? Get XP. Do that? Get loot. Gambling mechanics started popping up everywhere, because, well… gambling and operant conditioning are best fuckin buds, and that’s bad for us.
So there’s another book, and this one I’ll name, because I’ve been reading it and I think it’s great so far. It’s called DRIVE, by Daniel Pink. In the book, Pink talks about the two kinds of motivations you’ve probably heard of if you’ve ever taken a psych class, but if you didn’t have the chance, here they are:
Instrinsic Motivation, which is internal, self-driven motivation; you want to get to the end of the story because of your desire to do so, you pick the blue PlayStation Vita because you like the color Blue.
Extrinsic Motivation, which is external, outwardly-driven motivation, like the paycheck you get to keep your job, or XP level-ups on a bar, or opening card packs.
Most game motivation is extrinsic, which is why you get a ton of quests that are “kill 10 goats” and you do it because if you do, you will get 50 XP and 10 gold.
Most game stories are intrinsically-driven, which is how you end up with fandoms posting a bunch of fanart about their mains or writing fanfic or, yes, buying sequels to games because they’re excited to get the game.
Put another way, while all of Final Fantasy XIV is both extrinsically and intrinsically driven, the extrinsic motivators that dominated A Realm Reborn are the motivator behind all those boring fetch quests, and the intrinsically-compelling elements are what made you start to get misty during Endwalker.
What Pink argues — and I’ve seen this in other psych studies as well — is that solely motivating people extrinsically is a great way to not just burn them out, but make them stop caring. We know this is true for lots of mammals, actually! Rats stopped doing what they were expected to do and became lethargic and depressed, and dogs would actually attack the people who would give them treats as extrinsic motivation. As it turns out, simply force-stimulating the brain to ooze out dopamine makes mammals, and that includes humans, depressed, anxious, and angry.
If you want to harm your players, this is how. If you want a fanbase that’s argumentative, violent, and shitty, this is how. While extrinsic motivation is a powerful early-game motivator (which is why lots of free to play games give out tons of premium currency early on and it dries up over time, conditioning players to a specific rate of currency, which can only be maintained if they start spending money), it ultimately harms the player, making them depressed, anxious, and angry.
You should not do this, if you give a shit at all about being a good game designer who wants to make the world a better place. Gamification is quite possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to the industry.
This isn’t to say all extrinsic motivation is bad — we love to get a good salary at our jobs, it’s nice to see XP bars filling up, stuff like that. On its own, it’s damaging, the same way eating a fistful of pink curing salt will kill you, but putting a tiny bit in your sausage will allow it to kill off botulism and keep you alive.
If you want people to care — and I mean really, really care — and you want to keep them motivated, composed, and open, then you need to provide a powerful intrinsic motivator, like, say, curiosity about what will happen next, delight at a character interaction, or yearning for long-lost lovers to reunite.
In short, you need to create emotional desire.
And that, my friends, is what story does.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF DOCTOR CARROTFIXER
I’m pulling this one direct from the twitter thread, because it delights me, and we should do delightful things for ourselves.
In a traditional AAA game, you might be given a quest, like “Kill Hitler.”
So you meet a character, who says something like: “gosh, protagonist, I really want to help you find and kill Hitler, who I understand is about to drop nukes on literally every corner of the planet, but first, I need you to help me figure out why these carrots aren’t growing” and you’re like “the fate of the planet is at stake! Is it really that important we do this right now?” and he’s like “no, I suppose not, but all the same, I need you to find Doctor Carrotfixer. He was at either the library, the hospital, or the combination library/hospital. I’m not sure.”
The character just… ignores the urgency of Hitler’s nukes, or Steven Fuckmurder’s uncool necromancy, or Gregor Skellybones’ industrial motherfuckerization, and you have to do what he wants. Nothing else matters; you can’t really tell him “fuck off, I’m going to save the world, since that’s something of a priority.”
What happens is, you’ll go to objective one, and you’ll find that no, Doctor Carrotfixer isn’t there, but you have to kill 5 bunnies. Then you will go to objective Bravo, and you have to kill 5 werebunnies. Still, there’s no Doctor Carrotfixer. So you do the only thing available and go to objective C, and you will have to kill three waves of bunnybots. At the end of going to three (and it’s almost always three) distinct objectives, you will get a cutscene where Doctor Carrotfixer is located and you escort him (or he’ll teleport, either way) back to the guy who is stopping you from KILLING HITLER.
You’ve encountered this before, right? Maybe in a certain post-apocalyptic game, you’re trying to find your son, so you do about 800 different sidequests. Or maybe you want to do bank heists for yourself, but you keep being forced into robbing banks on behalf of some guy you accidentally slighted — you’re not doing things for yourself, you’re just doing busywork for a boss you hate. Or maybe you were trying to figure out what was causing the Anthem of Creation to go awry, but now you need to gather 900 flowers and 11 aluminum. You’ve probably played these and other games just like them, and you know how frustrating it can be. Why does this matter?
Some games, like The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, counter this by making your character’s role in the universe more personal, more of a sellsword. Geralt, The Witcher, is, by occupation, a man who hunts monsters, so of course you stop to fight monsters while other things are going on; it’s your job and identity, and honestly, a big griffon terrorizing a town should be stopped, even as you try to piece together what happened to your adopted daughter. In Cyberpunk 2077, you’re basically a hired gun, so of course a lot of the sidequests are about being hired to do crimes as you try to find a cure for the disease eating your body — you need cash, you need resources, and those quests will get you those things. These are well-designed games that really understand how narrative and player motivation are tied together, but they’re exceptions, rather than the rule.
I’ll call the bad design above “quid pro quo” quest design; you’re doing things because if you don’t, you can’t get more story. It’s a barrier to enjoyment, rather than a motivator. You were excited to do something, but now you gotta do chores, and the chores themselves aren’t an interesting change, but simply padding to lengthen the narrative. Is the quest enjoyable? Walking around and going “nope, not here” is, I’d argue, not motivating at all.
THE ONLY GAME THAT IS TOO LONG IS A GAME THAT ISN’T WORTH PLAYING
“This game is twenty-five hours long?” she shouted incredulously. “Yeah?” came the reply. “That’s too much time!” The other party stirred. “How come?” She sat down at her computer and booted up Destiny 2, which she has 2,000 hours in. “It just seems like a lot.”
Here’s a thing: a common hot take in the industry goes something like this: “games these days are too long,” but many of the people I’ve seen saying this have thousands of hours in the games they enjoy, and some of them play games over and over every year because they love them. Length only — and I do mean only — becomes a factor when the game is boring. Why is the game boring? Well, probably because you got told to go save the world and then you had to help find Doctor Carrotfixer, like a glorified errand boy. This isn’t something to care about. This is just… a thing you do.
You know the statement “if you build it, they will come”? That statement comes from a movie about a prophetic dream a guy received about his son coming back — it was actually “if you build it, he will come” in Field of Dreams. I’ve heard this mentioned, time and time again, by designers who don’t really know why people will they play their game; they assume if the game simply exists, if the mechanics themselves are fun enough, people will simply… want to play.
But the thing is, plenty of story games have excellent gameplay, and we don’t necessarily want to play those infinitely, do we? We might play them a lot — I play Halo 3 and Kane & Lynch 2 nearly every year — but even then, we still find times to be done with them; perfect gameplay isn’t enough to keep us going. No matter how good your systems are, a big part of the reason we keep playing is intrinsic — Halo 3 is practically flawless on a mechanical level, but without new content, there’s only so much I can play per year.
You can’t count on making people want to play your game just because the mechanics are perfect. You still need some kind of internally motivating force, such as a desire to see the story to the end.
A game becomes too long when it ceases to be enjoyable; people keep playing Final Fantasy XIV for thousands of hours because they love prepping for the next story expansion because they can’t wait to see what happens next. It’s not too long, so why would a game people play for a mere hundred hours be too long… unless it had a lot of “go here and get 10 crystals, go there and get 11 crystals, now take all 21 crystals to the crystal dungeon, fight a couple guys, and get a sword with +10 damage.” That’s just busywork; it’s not emotionally powerful, it is only extrinsically powerful.
A game that is too long is a game that is too boring.
I put nearly 80 hours into Yakuza 7 and almost 150 into Persona 5 Royal because those games were absolutely astonishing, and now I’m going to use them as case studies to explain intrinsically-motivated quest design.
Persona 5 Royal
One day, when your pal Ryuji finds a phone number to call for a “maid service,” which is... pretty obviously not that. You, he, and another friend manage to find a spot to call one of the “maids” to. Of course, the two of them chicken out and scram, leaving you alone with someone who’s got a fairly unsavory career, at least for polite company. You weren’t really expecting it to work, and suddenly things feel like they’re getting out of hand until… you realize who the “maid” is.
Your homeroom teacher, Sadayo Kawakami.
The situation is, obviously, embarrassing to you both; you swear to keep each other’s secrets, and she offers to do actual maid work for you.
It’s… weird, to put it simply. Awkward, kind of funny, understandably embarrassing for her. It seems like some perverted fantasy; the kind of thing a horny teen boy like Joker, the player character, would find immensely appealing, but the relationship evolves over time. It becomes more genuine and meaningful; she helps you out at school, eventually discovers your role as the leader of the seemingly-mythical Phantom Thieves, and… it’s actually kind of nice.
And then you find out why she needs the extra cash.
She had a student who she was helping prep for college, tutoring him on the side, but his aunt and uncle, who took him in after his parents died, decided he owed them money for their “help,” and forced her to quit being his teacher. Despondent, the student left their last lesson and was struck by a car, killing him.
Without the “revenue stream” they expected from the student, they blackmailed the teacher, saying they would spread lies about her unless she began paying him what her student would have, had he lived, blaming her for his death.
Now, this is all backstory, and you could see all of this in a little text blurb or dialogue option near a quest, but no, oh no, Persona 5 makes sure you see this happen; you have to stand there and watch as the blackmailers cause Kawakami to curl up into a ball of fear.
I have been there; the circumstances were different, but I know what it’s like to have done nothing wrong and still find yourself shrinking into a little ball of pain, just wishing it would stop, wishing someone would step in. You can’t imagine what I felt for Kawakami in that moment; I wanted to help her, not because there was some reward in it for me, but because this wasn’t right and she deserved better.
You know what’s great about Persona 5? Well, buddy, you can do quite a few things about that problem. After all, the Phantom Thieves’ whole agenda is fight the evil in the souls of abusers and bullies everywhere, changing their hearts for the better.
Because you got to see it play out, now you want to.
This is far from the only quest like this; in fact, it’s practically the whole game — where a lesser game might say “do this because that’s the next thing to do,” Persona 5 roots every single one of its story quests in this same kind of thing. Another quest sees a kid bullied by a teacher who eventually tries to stick up for himself, only to make repeated mistakes trying to atone for the things the teacher made him do, get bullied himself, before eventually managing to free himself from all the people who kept him down; the game tells you the story of a doctor who was disgraced from her position by a competing doctor, and you’re sitting there in the office when the arrogant bastard walks in and poo-poos her new place of work, even though she’s dramatically more talented and competent than he ever was. Seeing a child she’s trying to treat, watching the doctor take over the case and nearly kill the child, and helping the doctor win feels so good. Every character has a complete and satisfying emotional arc, and that’s all outside of the main plot.
Rather than being barriers to progress (Persona doesn’t go “THE WORLD IS IN DANGER SO DO BUSYWORK!”), Persona’s quests advance relationships and the plot, and each and every one of them is built entirely around the idea that you’ve got to give a shit about other people. It does this by showing you the pain they’ve been through; by giving you reasons to care about people, rather than just having a guy say “please give me bacon, I need bacon, kill 10 pigs for me.” You see the people as people; you relate to them. It’s not about the XP, it’s not about the progression, it’s about building relationships.
P5R will literally just sit you down at a restaurant with the weird kid who betrayed you to the abusive teacher one time but who is trying to make up for it by helping you out, and you’ll just… talk to him, and find out he feels inadequate and doesn’t want to feel worthless. The game will underline and bold this point by having a character walk up and be like “WELL WELL WELL, if it isn’t Sadboi Nerdly. What’s up NERD, I bet you’re STILL SAD ALL THE TIME, huh. Lick my boots.” And you’ll be like “THIS MOTHERFUCKER,” and Sadboi? well, sadboi will literally like, sit there and they will rotate his character model 180 degrees, and a speech balloon will pop up going “protagonist… don’t worry, i deserve this” and then the character model will disappear and a speech balloon will say “licking sounds.”
Your character will show a frowny face and you’ll have a thought balloon go “damn… he’s licking their boots! this will NOT stand!” and it’s SO low budget, right? It’s not the last of us shirt scene, right? It’s just some speech balloons and model hiding and whatever. But it actually MATTERS to you EMOTIONALLY because You Watched Your Friend Who Is Trying To Make Up For Being A Fuckup Get Humiliated.
I don’t ‘want’ things in a game because a character kills 500 dudes and then kills one other person and is like “god im SO SAD, watch this VERY brilliantly animated shirt removal animation.” I want things that seem low budget as fuck if the EMOTIONAL STAKES MATTER.
A man commits a murder, and Ichiban Kasuga is asked to do the unthinkable: take the fall. He’ll do a dime or two, get out, and be welcomed back into the family by the clan leader, the man he would do anything for, the man Ichiban wishes was his father, because Ichiban was an orphaned child found in a train station twenty years before, and as a teen, the old man took him in, gave up one of his fingers to get Ichiban out of trouble, and has kept Ichiban employed and safe ever since.
If you were in that position, and you got out of prison, how would you feel to discover that he won’t even look you in the eye?
I can tell you what Ichiban Kasuga does: he marches right up to the old man in his place of work… and gets shot by the very man who was like a father to him. Kasuga gave up twenty years of his life for the man, and the guy didn’t just ignore him, he tried to kill him, like some kind of coverup. Kasuga had spent all that time believing — believing — that the man loved him, and then he wakes up in a homeless people camp, being taken care of by a hobo with an unusual amount of medical knowledge.
What follows is one of the best Yakuza stories ever, and a big part of why is because… well: why! Why did he do this to you?
Instead of just being like “uh yeah the universe is in danger, which is pretty bad,” it’s the hurt and betrayal and the need to know why you fucking abandoned me after I did everything you asked that makes Yakuza 7 so fucking compelling.
Of course, it’s not just the main plotline here; because you start in a homeless camp, you come to befriend various homeless people, like an old man who’s become buds with a schoolboy, who reminds him of the son he once lost. The old man hears the boy’s birthday is coming up, and his father is too busy to celebrate, so he decides he’d like to help the kid out, but he’s a bum, you know? He knows that society doesn’t give a shit about him, he knows that nobody really cares. But still, he sees this boy in pain and he wants to help, not just for the son he lost, but because this boy deserves better.
You help him build the boy a bookshelf, because he loves to read. The quest seems happy! The boy is happy, the homeless guy feels hope for the first time…
And then the next time you see him, he’s pawing through the trash… to recover the bookshelf.
Turns out the kid must not have actually cared about him at all. Maybe they weren’t really friends. He’s heartbroken, but you, Ichiban Kasuga, won’t let that slide. That kid’s a fuckin DICK, and we’re gonna get some goddamn answers.
Turns out the kid’s dad is a huge asshole and didn’t want him accepting gifts from a dirty old man that society turned its back on, and when you see him acting like shit not just to the old man but also to his son, well… that’s something you can’t abide, because Ichiban Kasuga is a good fuckin dude, and he beats the absolute shit out of the guy, FOR JUSTICE!!
The guy calls a time-out; somewhere between his fifth and sixth concussion, he’s come to a realization: he’s been treating his son like shit, and honestly, he treated the homeless guy like shit too.
I can’t remember if you get anything for the quest, because it doesn’t matter, but I remember the hell out of that quest! I loved it. I loved giving a shit. I loved the emotional rollercoaster of triumphantly helping a guy be kind to someone and the devastation that followed, and I loved being able to convince the dad to be a better person, instead of simply killing him, the way you might in a generic post-apocalyptic open world video game.
Each and every sidequest in Yakuza 7 — and I completed all 51 — is like this. Maybe you find a girl who believes she’ll die when the last flower falls, so you do everything in your power to make sure the flower won’t fall, and that means stopping a guy with an airsoft gun trying to do target practice and a sumo wrestler who really wants to knock the tree over. Your desire here is for the girl to live, and you want to inspire her.
Every single quest is a story — it’s about giving a shit about other people; while I don’t care so much about themes in works (because inexperienced and bad writers both use that as a way to soapbox about ideas, rather than just… being human), Yakuza 7 is a game that tackles issues of how poverty, homelessness, and sex work are treated in Japan. It’s a game that is, above all else, kind, caring, and deeply empathic, much like its protagonist. I’m not talking about some kind of sappy, wholesome bullshit, I’m talking about a game where every quest gives a man who feels so strongly and so beautifully about the people around him the opportunity to shine and be good… except for quest 51, haha.
You just tend to end up punching people anyways.
I have written about Ace Combat before, so I won’t belabor the point, I just like Ace Combat.
So, we’ve been talking about how these games create stakes through relationships with people, through moments that make us care, building, not around “uh just do some shit lol idk?” but around seeing — which, as we all know, is believing — other. fuckin. people, caring about them and their struggles, and using our role in the game to motivate us going forward.
But I’d like to use Ace Combat to point out that there are other ways to motivate the player — when a character looks forward to you in a fight and says “this twisted game needs to be reset,” or you hear people screaming “it’s the demon lord of the round table!” it feels fuckin awesome. More games should do that. Read the Ace Combat article if you want more, then play:
4, 5, 0, 6, 7, and the remake of 2 that was released on 3ds (there is another game with the same title of “assault horizon” but you want Legacy+, not the one for pc/360/ps3 which is awful and I regret touching it because it’s not like, funny cringe, it’s just bad and jingoistic, and the first PSP game. Basically: is it set in Strangereal? If so, play it. If not, don’t (there is a second PSP game set on Earth that’s actually pretty good, but it’s an exception).
A LITTLE VIDEO GAME CALLED “ADIOS”
When I wrote the first thread, one night in January 2021, I was getting ready to ship Adios, a game I wrote and directed and developed with my partners at our studio Mischief. It’s only 4600 words long, and, while I’ve been talking about how bad busywork is in games… I made a game where you actually do farm chores and talk.
Look, I don’t have the kind of money to develop Persona or Yakuza or Ace Combat games. We made this game on chewing gum, duct tape, covid (it knocked me on my ass for two months and I got long covid bad after that!). I cannot give you the kind of narrative I’m best at — longform, sprawling, all about setup and payoff.
But man, look at those reviews. Overwhelmingly Positive? Maybe I do know a thing or two after all. I can at least tell you what I did, and if you think it works for you, then incorporate it as you wish. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. But first, we gotta talk about limitations!
I had to write a game in a single location: a farm.
I didn’t have the budget for tons of characters — there are more characters in Kawakami’s questline in Persona 5 Royal than the entirety of the game Adios (we have two human models, the player character, and two voices on the telephone) — to play with.
The amount of animations, mechanics, and assets were going to be severely limited by the budget.
So, okay, here’s a conflict between two people: one person is trying to convince the other to do something he doesn’t want to do. It was really a game about a struggle I’d been going through, whether or not to stay in a relationship that was deeply damaging to me. I had reasons to want to stay, but I knew I needed to go. So that was the game — a character dealing with the fact that he loves, and is proud, of what he’s done. At the same time, there are things he’s beating himself up for, maybe when he doesn’t need to. I really wanted to get these two Midwestern guys here because Midwestern guys have a way of solving problems that’s oblique but deeply personal. We don’t necessarily need to talk about exactly what we’re working through, but we need to work through something in order to
So I started working out a timeline — I knew the ending, that very specific gut punch. I knew the start, because it was the first thing I said to myself that helped plant the seed for the story: “I can’t do this anymore.”
Okay, a last meal makes sense, given the subject matter. What would you do on the last day of your life? Find serenity? Okay. I wanted to have the characters go through a few things — at first, Farmer thinks he can convince Hitman to let him out peacefully. Then he’s in denial. Then he realizes he can’t just… not talk about why. He has to open up. So he tries, man. He tries so fucking hard. But the other guy can’t, or won’t, listen to him.
Hitman’s affable, Hitman’s in denial. He wants to imagine you can smooth this all over, to pretend everything is going to be okay. A guy who considers him good at convincing people finally loses cool around noon — just enough to realize that he needs to respect his friend’s wishes.
We needed emotional variety — some of it didn’t make it in, like taking pictures of a deer, developing those pictures, and whispering in awe at the majesty of such a creature. Some of it did, like catching Admiral in the pond (Admiral the Fish, General the Tree, there’s a pattern here, but not a theme, just a personality trait for the man), jokingly squirting goat milk at the man whose job it is to shoot guns at people. Both characters break at points; they compose themselves. The farmer finally confesses his heartbreak to the dog; here we see how he sees himself.
And so I took all these things, worked them out in a call with the team, put them in order, and then spent the next few months — I was put in a traumatic situation that only ended after bone replacement surgery and getting a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis and beginning to receive trauma care, so that put a bit of a damper on things, making a game so emotionally vulnerable — refining it until I was happy. Then I deleted my scripts and wrote the final draft in something like four days.
What got left on the cutting room floor was either budget or not good enough. What stayed was what you get.
The rule I set for myself was simple: every scene needs a distinct purpose; it advances our understanding of the characters in some way. When a character hints at something, we learn something about them. “Roy would have been about his age…” Hitman drifts off, thinking of his dead son in The Way, a conversation about sons and things they can’t fix that happens as two men try to fix a car, which follows on from The Soda, a scene where Farmer finally opens up about losing his wife and grief, talking about how solving problems helps him solve problems. The Soda tells us what brings Farmer joy, and it tells us how empty Hitman’s life is.
The Way shows us how Hitman doesn’t want to talk about how he lost his son — even if it’s brief, and nobody playing the game will really understand it, because the game never discusses Roy or the fact Hitman had a son beyond that line, but this is how people talk; they don’t necessarily exposit everything. They drift on to Sol because, well, in a sense, Solomon is Hitman’s adoptive son now. Then they talk about Sol’s predecessor, Slick — “that boy’s been seen more hurt than any of us” is the line, I believe. Farmer expresses a desire to leave something behind — the El Camino, for Slick. Hitman used Slick; you’ll understand more eventually, especially when he gives Slick the El Camino and lies about how Farmer passed. It’s a dense conversation and it’s my favorite. They talk about ghosts, we hint at Bill’s anger at his father, which comes out later in the story.
Every single bit of the game meant something; it wasn’t about getting a message across — there’s a part where we talk about that in Adios. There is no lesson, there’s just a person, a person in a lot of pain, a person who wants to do good but doesn’t know if he has or if he can. I think, for my part, that he did. He won that medal of honor. He trapped himself in hell for his son. He’s a good man. He really is. His tragedy is that he never believed he was good. He deserved better.
This is what I intended, of course. What you think about the game is up to you; I’m really only offended by the remarks that the game is “about” suicide. I would have written that very differently. The man dies because he does the right thing, but it’s not a win condition for him; it’s a terrible cost to do good. But dammit, I think he did good, in the end.
It’s how I’m writing Adios 2, alongside my pals Phil and Kevin, which is already, at ~45–50 pages long, a lot denser and more in-depth about Hitman’s life six years after the events of Adios. If Adios is a game about doing the right thing, even if the cost is dying, or losing part of yourself in the process, just because it’s more important to do right in some small way, then Adios 2 is about wondering if you can ever be forgiven for your failings, and being desperate for human connection while feeling that you have to cut yourself off for fear of going through that pain all over again.
We always write the thing before we make the thing; that way, we make what we write, and our story — the emotional throughline of the game, is always intact. We can build gameplay around story, but a good story almost never gets built around gameplay, because of that uncanny valley effect we talked about earlier.
Each scene matters, in some way. It advances understanding more than plot — that understanding, hopefully, leads to empathy. When Hitman softens and asks “why are you doing this,” and farmer trembles “because I want to see her again, and I figure if I do one right thing, just one right thing…” even though he’s done a lot more than one… maybe, just maybe, it’ll be worth something.
I wanted to do my best to make you care about two people who were faced with the impossible. You’ll see Hitman go back to Jimmy and beg for the Farmer’s life later. You’ll watch Sol’s later heartbreak. You’ll see Slick curled up in a bathtub with Bogus, his golden retriever, shaking and crying, despite being a 6'8" monster of a man.
There’ll be a minotaur.
It’s a lot.
Anyways, I’m not here to tell you I’m the best, I’m the greatest, whatever, but while I can tell you the events of other games and how they impacted me, I can also give you insight into how I make decisions when it comes to storytelling; what I hoped the game achieved, and what it did. I know none of you caught that I researched the zip codes available at the time for accuracy, or noted that the Gulf War wasn’t going on in October 1992, despite a reference to the contrary. No one caught the reference to the movie Giant, you’d never know about the green carpet at the house my grandpa built himself… but that’s okay. That’s not part of the “writing process,” that’s just putting love into the game. That’s not what motivates players; lore is fun, but I think for those of you who played the game and cared… I think you probably cared about two men struggling to talk to each other about the decisions they had to make.
INTRINSIC MOTIVATION IS EVERYTHING
That’s the essay, we’re at about 11,000 words now, but I hope it was comprehensive.
Look, the truth is… I’m not doing well. This is probably rougher than you deserve, considering I promised to write this back in January 2021, more than a year ago. The past six or so weeks have been really difficult, for a lot of reasons beyond my control, including someone trying to steal my car.
But I hope that despite it all, I’ve done my best, and my best has shown through. I recoil at the disrespect this discipline gets — people who look down on writing thinking it’s so easy you can do it without caring really irk me. I think the root of “games are too long” or “games stories are bad” ultimately come down to not… having your story planned out first. There’s stuff I wanted to talk about that I didn’t get to, like suture or emotional variety being crucial. For this, I think it was best to just focus on story, motivation, and how games are boring, and how we can avoid that through character.
I hope this works. Thank you so much for reading. I’ll do my best with the next piece!